Mac Stipanovich: A political obituary for Nikki Fried

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I come to bury Nikki Fried, metaphorically speaking, not to praise her.

And I am not being disingenuous as was Shakespeare’s Marc Antony in his funeral oration for Julius Caesar.

Among the political class in Tallahassee, where selfishness and self-regard are the rule, Fried stood out. Not for her humility and servant’s heart, but for her unbridled ambition and supersized ego.

Formerly a professional lobbyist, Fried wanted to run for Governor in 2018, but the odds against her were too long given the field of credible Democratic candidates.

So, she decided to go down ballot and run for Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs, an office about which she cared not one whit except as a launchpad for the gubernatorial race that was her heart’s desire.

She got lucky.

Fried drew a lackluster Republican opponent and, improbably, won in a year of very, very close statewide races by 6,753 votes out of more than 8,000,000 votes cast. As planned, she was off and running for Governor before she had lowered her right hand after taking the oath of office as Ag Commissioner, savaging a bemused Ron DeSantis day in and day out over this, that, and whatever.

Finally, after two and a half years of snorting, pawing the ground, and head-butting the starting gate, Fried was ready to formally announce her candidacy.

Then she got unlucky. In May 2021, former Governor, Attorney General, Education Commissioner, State Senator and current Congressman Charlie Crist announced that he was running for the Democratic nomination for Governor.

Fried nevertheless entered the race a month later, but she was a dead woman walking from the get-go.

The well-known and well-liked Crist dominated the optimum center-left lane and could not be dislodged.

So Fried had to tack farther left, trying to get out of Crist’s wind shadow and find some clean air in which to sail, but there was no joy for her there. Marquee progressives like State Reps. Anna Eskamani and Carlos Guillermo Smith backed Crist, preferring his record, substance, and general election prospects to Fried’s inexperience and rhetorical jazz hands. The lion’s share of the political leadership of the Black community followed suit, as did women political leaders generally. And unions. And newspaper editorial boards.

In short, Crist pretty much ran the Democratic table in terms of high profile personal and institutional support.

For a brief moment, the overturning of Roe v. Wade seemed to offer Fried hope, because Crist had in his Republican past been a pro-life fellow traveler. But his record in Congress on the issue of abortion was impeccable, and his conversion was apparently convincing to the pro-choice gatekeepers in the Democratic Party, so he weathered Fried’s assault and emerged intact if not undamaged.

From the beginning to the end, Fried’s fatal flaw was that there was no there there. Something New. That was her campaign theme, her mantra. But nothing about her was new or authentic.

As noted, she was a lobbyist by trade, the epitome of business as usual in government, something about which I, as a long-time lobbyist, can speak with authority. Politically, she supported Republicans like then State Senator and now Education Commissioner and public education vandal extraordinaire Manny Diaz, Jr.

Socially, she was the queen of the marijuana mafia, a louche lot that included then State Representative and mega MAGA man Matt Gaetz and now confessed sex trafficker Joel Greenberg. Now she says all that was professional necessity, not personal preference, that she just did it for the money. And I believe her, although I hardly think prioritizing profit over principle makes her an inspirational fresh face on the political scene.

She is a woman to be sure, as she reminded us with mind-numbing regularity, and that is indeed different than half the population on the planet, but so was U.S. Sen. Paula Hawkins. And elected Secretaries of State Sandy Mortham and Katherine Harris, elected Education Commissioner Betty Castor, Lt. Govs. Toni Jennings, Jennifer Carroll, and Jeanette Nuñez, Senate Presidents Gwen Margolis and Jennings, incoming Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, elected Chief Financial Officer and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Alex Sink, and Fried’s current Cabinet colleague Attorney General Ashley Moody, not to mention scads of women state legislators and members of Florida’s Congressional delegation, past and present.

Not enough women to be old hat and no Governor, but Fried is just one of many successful women politicians from both parties in the Sunshine State and nothing new at all.

So, it is not at all surprising that Crist clubbed her like a baby seal on Tuesday, beating her by 25 percentage points. But her demise came at a price.

The only statewide office held by a Democrat has been gifted to a Republican because Fried would not run for re-election and bide her time for a gubernatorial campaign. She forced Crist to burn through his cash on hand in order to defend himself against her desperate kamikaze attack, so now he has to reload, which may take precious weeks, as DeSantis, who has more money than God, advances almost unopposed on the paid media front.

And while the damage the scorned and bitter Fried did to Democratic unity and intensity in the General Election with the violence of her political death throes cannot be precisely measured, it is almost certainly not inconsequential and could prove decisive in a close general election in November.

To continue to borrow from the Bard, these are the evils that will live after Fried. I leave it to others to find any good that will be interred with her bones.

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